Extract from a Summary Appreciation of Wordsworth by F.L.Lucas - from "Fifteen Poets" first published in January, 1941 by Oxford University Press.
WILLIAM WORDSWORTH (1770-1850) was educated at the grammar school of Hawkshead and St. John's College, Cambridge. In 1790 he went on a walking tour in France, the Alps, and Italy. He returned to France late in 1791 and spent a year there; the revolutionary movement was then at its height and exercised a strong influence on his mind. While in France he fell in love with the daughter of a surgeon at Blois, Annette Vallon, who bore him a daughter. When the French Revolution was followed by the English declaration of war and the Terror, Wordsworth's republican enthusiasm gave place to a period of pessimism. In 1795 he made the acquaintance of S. T. Coleridge. A close and long-enduring friendship developed between the poets, and Wordsworth, with his sister Dorothy and Mr. and Mrs. Coleridge, lived for a year in close intercourse at Alfoxden and Stowey in Somerset. Together the poets published in 1798 Lyrical Ballads, which marked a revival in English poetry. Together also, at the end of the same year, the poets went to Germany, Wordsworth and his sister wintering at Goslar. Here Wordsworth began The Prelude and wrote Ruth, Lucy Gray, the lines on Lucy, and other poems. He married in 1802 Mary Hutchinson of Penrith. Events abroad now changed his political attitude to one of patriotic enthusiasm. In 1805 he completed The Prelude which, however, was not published until after his death. In 1807 he moved to Rydal Mount, Grasmere, which he occupied till his death. In 1843 he succeeded Southey as Poet Laureate and died in 1850.
"TAKIN' his family out in a string and never geein' the deariest bit of notice to 'em; standin' by hisself and stoppin' behind agapin', with his jaws workin' the whoal time; but niver no crackin' wi 'em, nor no pleasure in 'em - a desolate-minded man, ye kna -- it was potry as did it" - thus it was that Wordsworth struck the critical eye of his local innkeeper. Chaucer, likewise, cut no great figure in the opinion of Chaucer's Host; still a far less unhappy figure than this.
And yet one of the essential things about Wordsworth is, precisely, his happiness. Few men, certainly few poets, have found so much of it as the writer of The Happy Warrior. And, to complete his happiness, he was himself aware of it. He was not, like Virgil's rustics, ignorant of his own bliss. "No one," he said, "has completely understood me - not even Coleridge. He is not happy enough (Footnote 1). I am myself one of the happiest of men, and no man who lives a life of constant bustle and whose happiness depends on the opinions of others can possibly comprehend the best of my poems."
What, then, was Wordsworth's secret? He was born with no silver spoon in his mouth. In youth he suffered both poverty and unhappy passion; nor was his the happy-go-lucky temper of a Leigh Hunt - he felt too violently. "Had I been a writer of love-poetry, it would have been natural to me to write it with a degree of warmth which could hardly have been approved of by my principles, and which might have been undesirable for the reader." Indeed, in The Borderers there are moments as savagely embittered as Beddoes, as gloomy as modern Europe :
But at the surfaces of things; we hear
Of towns in flames, fields ravaged, young and old
Driven out in troops to want and nakedness:
Then grasp our swords and rush upon a cure
That flatters us because it asks not thought:
The deeper malady is better hid,
The world is poisoned at the heart.
Nor, again, did the key to Wordsworth's happiness lie simply in his poetic gift. History is full of "mighty poets in their misery dead". For as often as not this gift of Apollo can prove a curse like Cassandra's. Nor was it his poetic success. For by thirty, it is said, Wordsworth had earned only £10, then earned no more till sixty-five; while if reviews could kill.....
No, Wordsworth doggedly trod out his own path to happiness; because he knew himself, and how to find himself and, above all, how to lose himself.
"I1 nous faut nous abestir pour nous assagir," "In order to become sages, we must first become beasts" observes the wise Montaigne. "I have been too hard on my brother the ass," said the dying St. Francis of his body. The author of Peter Bell made no such mistake. He realized betimes how much the cities of our modern civilization are Cities of Destruction: he fled, with all the fervour of Bunyan's Pilgrim, from the snares of material "Progress."
No doubt all civilization must be an encroachment on Nature. Those who think it an argument against anything to call it "unnatural" should for consistency fling off their clothes and skip up the nearest tree. Yet encroach on Nature one step too far, and her revenges are terrible. She cannot prevent the giant-city smoking where once waved her woods; but her slow retribution sets its mark on paling cheeks and failing nerves, on foreheads haggard with the rush of modern life, on childless hearths. This is no new revelation. Theocritus, Virgil, Horace, Montaigne, Ronsard, Cowley, Rousseau, Walt Whitman, W. H. Davies, D. H. Lawrence - all of them in their different times and ways have heard "above the roar of streets" the voice of her whom we may at moments imagine we have tamed, but who can still destroy the minds and souls, as well as the bodies, of all who outrage her.
Yet Wordsworth, in his return to her, never grew morbid like Rousseau, or animal like D. H. Lawrence. "Love had he found in huts where poor men lie." He did not try, like Whitman, "to turn and live with the animals". So to-day his is still a living voice, crying in the wilderness its prophetic protest, not only against the unhealthiness of all over-civilization, but also against the drab brutality of the machine-world and of the mass-state. (He was not always a pleasant individual: but he was always individual.) He wrote no poem more characteristic than Resolution and Independence. And in our herd-age he still stands out in passionate opposition, as one who vindicates unceasingly the freedom of soul not only of Shakespeare and Milton, but even of leech-gatherers and old shepherds like Michael; the individual worth, to the eye of vision, of even the meanest flower, even the commonest clod.
The night that calms, the day that cheers;
The common growth of mother earth
Suffices me - her tears, her mirth,
Her humblest mirth and tears.
No doubt in later years he ossified. It is always one of the hardest things in life to hold the balance between letting the world be "too much with us", and too little: and Wordsworth tended to grow too much the Hermit of Grasmere, the Grand Lama of the Lakes. But at least he never renounced his conviction that it is only states of mind and feeling that really matter; not things, nor machinery, nor even books (that was poor Southey's mistake) - for books, too, are machines, however good ones.
This is the true Wordsworth who has ministered to so many minds diseased; not the defender of Capital Punishment or of the Irish Church. This is the Wordsworth who was happy; so far as man can be. Happiness consists largely, as in a grim boutade Johnson once suggested, in being drunk. But not in Johnson's literal sense; for that brings headache and repentance. "Enivrez-vous; enivrez-vous sans cesse! De vin, de vertu, ou de poésie, a votre guise." Wordsworth, happier than Baudelaire, was a man intoxicated, not with wine, but with brook-water; with the burn tumbling from Glaramara, with the wind across Helvellyn, with the spin of his own healthy Cumberland blood. And these leave no stings behind.
Hence his appeal to souls like J. S. Mill, who had grown from an infant-prodigy, nourished on book-dust and ink, into a desiccated, depressed young man. Hence his power over many minds, as the founder almost of a new church, prophet as well as poet; wiser than Rousseau, though less wise, I feel, than Montaigne. Because of this simple strength his work endures, without any of the rainbow magic of Coleridge, or the kiss of La Belle Dame sans Merci on the pale lips of Keats, or the sun-shimmering mists of Shelley's vision, or the calling clarions of Scott, or the passionate gloom of Byron, or Landor's quiet, proud grace. He goes his own way, this grey, homespun man, who would wear his woollen stockings even to Court, under his silk ones: he goes his own way, but he does not lose it.
As a "pure poet" he is easy to criticize. We can well understand how, at exasperated moments, he seemed even to admirers like Tennyson and Arnold "thick-ankled" and "a boor" ; to FitzGerald, "Daddy Wordsworth" ; to Swinburne, "Philistine"; to Rossetti, "good, you know, but unbearable"; to Meredith in Richard Feverel, "a superior donkey reclaimed from the heathen". His famous theory of style is merely a natural revulsion frozen into a foolish rule; and his style in practice is often the very opposite of his own theory, without being any the better for that. Even in his best years he could vandalize the simple beauty of Helen of Kirkconnel into the unspeakable-
That through his brain are travelling,
Rushed forth and at the heart of Bruce
He launched a deadly javelin! ...
And Bruce, as soon as he had slain
The Gordon, sailed away to Spain
And fought with rage incessant
Against the Moorish crescent.
And yet he remains a standing example of that mystery and miracle - inspiration, the power of the unconscious levels of the mind. As J. K. Stephen said, there are two wholly different Wordsworths. Suddenly in this rough block of granite the mica flashes out, like diamond, beneath the moon; on this blunt, whale-headed fell the sunset strikes, like a great transfiguration, athwart, the grey, crawling rags of mist, until
Of earth - and with what motion move the clouds!
But Landor has said it all better, in words not the less true for being half humorous (as all English hexameters, willy-nilly, tend to be):
Sometimes flying from blood and sometimes pouring it freely.
Yet he was English at heart. If his words were too many; if Fancy's
Furniture lookt rather scant in a whitewashed homely apartment;
If in his mural designs there is sameness and tameness; if often
Feebleness is there for breadth; if his pencil wants rounding and pointing;
Few in this age or the last stand out on the like elevation.
There is a sheepfold he rais'd which my memory loves to revisit,
Sheepfold whose walls shall endure when there is not a stone of the palace.
F. L. LUCAS.